On this day in 1763, Major Henry Gladwin, British commander of Fort Detroit, foils Ottawa Chief Pontiac’s attempt at a surprise attack. Romantic lore holds that Gladwin’s Seneca mistress informed him of the western Indians’ plans for an uprising.
When Pontiac arrived at the fort with his men, who were concealing weapons under their trading blankets, they discovered that Gladwin had assembled his men and prepared them for a defense of the fort. Knowing that, without the element of surprise, their efforts would not be successful, Pontiac withdrew and instead laid siege to the fort for the rest of the summer, while his allies successfully seized 10 of 13 British forts in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions by June 20. The western Indians’ efforts to unite all Native Americans in an attempt to free themselves of addictions to European trade goods and alcohol, guided by their spiritual leader, a Delaware named Neolin, seemed to be succeeding. However, the French failed to come to the Indians’ aid in driving the British back to the Atlantic as hoped, dooming the rebellion.
British General Jeffrey Amherst, who first angered western Indians in 1760 by curtailing the tradition of gift exchange long practiced by both the French and English governments, unleashed one of the earliest uses of biological weaponry on the Indians in response to their uprising. He ordered Colonel Henry Bouquet of Fort Pitt to “Extirpate this Execrable Race,” by distributing smallpox-infected blankets among them. The plan succeeded in breeding a deadly smallpox epidemic among the Indians in 1763-64.
The Indians’ increased unity and success terrified western European settlers, already made nervous by the British king’s Proclamation Line of 1763, which denied their right to settle beyond the Appalachians. Colonists’ failure to find protection from the crown made them doubt the efficacy of their imperial governments. Meanwhile, officials in London believed backcountry settlers should share in the blame for the violence of the past 10 years and demanded their assistance in paying for the empire’s military expenses on American soil. In an effort to collect on this debt from the Americans, the British parliament passed, in rapid succession, the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, the Tea Act of 1773 and the Coercive Acts of 1774. By April 1775, the cycle of taxation and protest had escalated to the point that blood was spilled between colonists and Redcoats on Lexington Green in Massachusetts; the American Revolution had begun.